A bike path blooms in San José

June 27, 2015

I had to sell my bike. The time had come. I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the bike was just an object, easily replaceable. On the other hand, it was my most beloved object, the same bike I had ridden across Costa Rica. I could find the same make and model, but it was this particular Columba folding bike that had carried me 500 km from coast to coast.

Then I received a message: My friend Maud wanted to buy the bike. Not for her, but for her boyfriend, Charly. In recent months, Charly had been schlepping from Barrio Amón to Barrio Escalante, sometimes several trips a day. On foot, this commute was slow and tedious. On two wheels, Charly could pedal from home to work in minutes.

The bike would be a birthday surprise, so we had to wait several weeks before I dropped off the bike at Maud’s modest apartment. When the deadline finally came, I was excited, but there was a problem.

I lived in Escazú, the neighborhood just west of San José. Maud lived near Zapote, on the eastern side. The distance is only 10 km, which most cyclists can do in their sleep. But San José is a maze of gridlocked traffic, severe inclines, perilous one-way streets and madcap motorcyclists. Maud had to work during the day, so I would have to make this trip in the early evening – that is, rush hour.

Keep in mind, I didn’t have to wheel my bike out of my apartment, coast down a precipitous hill, merge with Escazú traffic, and then descend into the bowels of Los Anonos. I could have skipped the dark streets, the bridge with its low guardrail, the hairpin turn and heart-cracking ascent toward La Sabana. I could have easily called a cab and thrown the bike in its trunk. But this would have easily cost me $30, and many cabbies refuse to carry bicycles. So I pedaled fiercely past the park, rode the sidewalk up Paseo Colón, and arrived at La Merced Church.

And then I saw it.

There, on Fourth Avenue, lay a blue strip that bisected the pedestrian walkway. The icon of a bicycle was painted on its front, a beacon for all cyclists.

I had lived in Costa Rica for nearly two years and had seen only a handful of bikeways, or ciclovías. San José is an infamously dangerous city for bicycling, as the narrow streets offer little room for cars and scooters, much less bikes. The chances of getting “doored” or thrown over a car hood or smashed by a passing truck are pretty good, especially if you’re not adept at urban cycling. Well-marked ciclovías could theoretically change all that, but for as long as I had resided in San José, I had never really seen them. Until now.

I started to pedal the brick walkway. Fourth Avenue was jammed with people, who walked in all directions at a leisurely pace. Scores of people filled the ciclovía, because they were clearly unused to its presence. I saw no other cyclists as I weaved around these people, but as the crowd parted, they looked abashed, because they were clearly obstructing my passage. For the first time, those little painted bikes on the pavement indicated that I had the right of way. For 11 blocks, I was entitled to a continuous pathway – and even if it was filled with people, even if I had to stop at a cross-street every 200 meters and look both ways, at least the thoroughfare was designed for two wheels. It was incredible what a little paint could do, how empowered I felt, cooing, “Perdóname,” and watching startled walkers nod and smile, as if they had never imagined someone would actually use the ciclovía.

At last I reached the Plaza de las Artes, and I was delighted to see that the ciclovía continued, snaking beyond the Church of Our Lady of Solitude. I would have to turn, and I would not be able to explore the rest of this pathway for a long time, but I was ecstatic to see that it existed.

Throughout the world, the trouble with experimental bikeways is that they don’t always link up. Cyclists have to pedal through a tangle of dangerous streets before reaching the ciclovía, and even then there is no place to legally lock the bike up. This is discouraging for everyone, because urban planners wonder why no one is using the bikeway, and cyclists wonder why anyone would.

But I was overjoyed to see this first attempt at systematized urban cycling in San José. Unable to contain my zeal, I turned to a couple of police officers and gushed, “Can you believe it? This bikeway is amazing. I’m so excited we finally have one!”

The cops nodded cautiously, as if wondering whether I was crazy enough to arrest.

As I turned off, heading down the dark street toward Zapote, I marveled at my good fortune: On my very last evening of owning a bike, I had been able to ride this revolutionary trail. It wasn’t much; most people on the street didn’t seem to notice the ciclovía or understand its significance. But to me, it made all the difference. Today I could safely ride 11 blocks. And tomorrow? Que será será.

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